6 9 The Future of Science and Religion


Having free will allows us to envision a future,
whether for ourselves or for our society, and then to exert our willpower and efforts
to hopefully bring this envisioned future about. In this segment I will describe possible directions
that I think future ethical and spiritual paradigms might take, that can offer meaning
and guidance to people, that are nonetheless not antithetical to science. I will, as well, describe some of the potential
dangers religion and science may face in coming to terms with each other. These predictions about the future of science
and religion are no doubt influenced by my own personal experiences and struggles to
make sense of reality. My mother is Christian and my father was Buddhist/Confucian,
so I grew up surrounded by aspects of both of these traditions. While I admire the central ethical message
of Christ, namely to act based on love and forgiveness, I find it hard to believe many
of the ontological claims of religion. Also, in terms of a practice, I find the new
testament to be pretty thin on actually explaining how one is to attain a mind capable of being
governed by love and forgiveness. In that sense, the concrete practices that
come out of the Asian traditions may, in one sense, help many Christians become better
Christians. Some of my scientist colleagues reject religion
outright. While I, like many of them, cannot be convinced
to believe in things that are simply unbelievable to me, I do believe that modern civilization
needs a guiding ethical and indeed spiritual framework in order to grow into a less violent,
less alienating society more in harmony with Nature and human nature. We cannot revert to the lifestyles of pre-technological
peoples. We must attain a new harmony with Nature and
ourselves, embracing technology and science, without succumbing to a blind faith in technological
fixes for what ails us. Science and spiritual systems will, I believe,
gradually achieve a degree of mutually beneficial synthesis. Science will help religion grow beyond its
traditional reliance on myth and received dogma. Tolerant spiritualities will increasingly
be based less on belief than on practices such as meditation in a community of people
seeking to transform their consciousnesses. Such community practices will help us discover
what is true rather than be based on received beliefs about what is true. Such spiritual approaches will, in turn, help
science grow beyond its present reductionistic paradigm and rejection of experiential insight
as a valid mode of inquiry into the nature of reality. In the process of their co-evolution, the
paradigms of both religion and science are likely to both change dramatically in the
coming centuries. Spiritual traditions compatible with the worldview
of science already do exist. It is possible to live ethically without theistic
or supernatural myths just as it is possible to live and grow spiritually without faith
in one’s own immortality. For example, many Jews embrace Reform Judaism
as a culture and moral system of community living while maintaining skepticism toward
many of its theological claims. Even though a man might not believe in the
God portrayed in the old testament, he might still embrace the community and traditions
that foster a good and ethical life. Certainly, it is possible to have a moral
code of human behavior without the threat of divine punishment. Good need not be defined in reference to forces
outside individual conscience. Good can be conceived as that which sustains
and enhances life; evil, that which harms or undermines it. Such a biocentric non-theological definition
of good will not dissolve all our modern moral dilemmas, especially when benefitting one
life involves harming another, as in the cases of abortion or meat-eating, but it at least
frees us from old dilemmas such as ‘how can a good god have permitted the holocaust?’ And it frees us of the magical thinking that
some being other than a human being will save us from the worst in ourselves. Some Buddhist traditions are explicitly anti-myth
and anti-dogma. Zen, for example, is complementary to the
traditions of science. Whereas science, for the most part, is an
open-minded, skeptical, and methodical program of collective observation of the outer world,
Zen advocates open-minded, skeptical, and methodical observation of the inner world
by each individual. We are taught to accept that everything changes,
that to cling to things is a key source of needless suffering, and that all we are given
is our awareness here and now. We are taught to be skeptical of the ways
the mind deceives itself in its attempt to gratify addictions,
which are the root cause of human suffering. We are also given a method, meditation, which
trains our attention, and thereby our consciousness, so that we can dissolve the roots of suffering. Such an ethical and spiritual approach to
life in no way conflicts with a scientific worldview. Many Eastern traditions, however, also fail
to mesh with science in their ontological claims. Most branches of Buddhism and Hinduism maintain
that there is karma and reincarnation. Science has found no evidence for reincarnation
or any other causality of meanings outside the head, and therefore does not accept them. Of course, science may be wrong, but to say
so is not to grant that it is. Given replicable evidence, the scientific
community would eventually come around. This tolerance and search for what is real
is the beauty of science. If science did not require replicable and
concrete evidence, all we would have is opinions and unprovable—indeed, mutually exclusive—claims
about what is real. For the most part, that is what we did have
before the age of science. The data from Psychology experiments are quite
clear regarding what makes life have meaning. What makes people deeply happy, and most gives
them personally meaningful, purposeful lives, is connection. Connection to others, as in family and friends,
connection to what one is doing, and the place where one is living. This leads to deep engagement and a sense
of fulfillment. Traditions advocating connectedness as the
basis of spirituality—whether connectedness to oneself, family, community, other life,
the earth, or the universe—are also compatible with science. Indeed, quantum theory, with its recent verification
of the reality of non-local correlations over vast distances, lends new credence to the
old spiritual view that all events are interconnected. Ecology, as well, teaches us that all events
in the biosphere are interdependent. Science seems to be moving toward a worldview
in some ways analogous to those of certain ancient spiritual traditions, such as Native
American traditions. Science advocates a position that you are
related to all living beings on earth through a common ancient ancestor. Just think, you are related through ancestry
to that plant and even that paramecium! Science tells a creation story where our ancestors
emerged from the oceans and the land, from much simpler forms. Rather than undermining a spiritual worldview,
science is in effect supporting a worldview of deep connectedness among all living things,
where we literally came into being in and eventually out of the Earth’s oceans, and
where we are kin to all life. Traditional religions, freed of myth, sexism,
and dogma, have an ethical and spiritual core that can still help teach us about how to
live. Jesus had profound teachings about love, tolerance,
forgiveness, healing, and wholeness. That many people can no longer accept Western
religions’ ontological claims does not mean the traditions’ ethical and spiritual messages
need also be rejected. Perhaps the ethical baby was thrown out with
the bathwater of myth and dogma. Is it possible to reform some of these old
traditions in a manner that will prove compatible with science and not antithetical to it? I think so, but time will tell. Some ontological claims of religions seem
to me to be projections onto reality of people’s subjective experiences. Back when we lived in tribes, and our worlds
were dominated by nature and animals, we were animists, seeing life forces in every thing. Then, when we came to live in towns and cities
dominated by ruling families, we projected a ruling family out there into the world,
as the pantheon of gods. Then, when the first empires formed, God was
described as a king or emperor, and monotheism was conceived. Now human societies have undergone yet another
phase transition, this time not from a tribe to a city or a city to an empire, but a transition
to a global society where all human information is accessible in the palm of your hand. Just as the Greco-Roman metaphor of a family
of gods became unbelievable to many people, creating a vacuum of meaning that allowed
a new metaphor, namely one of God as emperor, to take hold, we live in a similar period,
where the emperor metaphor in turn has lost its hold on many people’s imaginations. If people project their modern experiences
onto reality, we might predict that future religious movements will focus on information
and consciousness as the essence of reality. Perhaps certain ontological claims from old
religions, that run counter to claims of science, can be reformulated into metaphors that are
not incompatible with science. For example, rather than emphasizing that
Christ will physically return in a bodily form, which requires believing in antiscientific
notions of the supernatural, future versions of Christianity might embrace this as a metaphor
for the return of his kind of consciousness in human beings. Right now, I suspect most believing Christians
would find that view heretical. But in the end, people will vote with their
feet and simply stop attending churches that do not speak to them, a societal process of
secularization that is well underway in the West and beyond. Non-dogmatic, non-mythological ethical and
spiritual systems have ample tradition to build upon. Science is not incompatible with any spirituality
compatible with reason. Traditions which revere the connections that
sustain life, and practices such as meditation will increasingly satisfy people’s needs for
moral and spiritual guidance. Just in my lifetime the transformation in
society has been dramatic. When I was a boy, I did not know a single
person who did yoga, whereas now it seems that yoga is everywhere. These non-Western traditions will, I suspect,
meld with the West’s own non-dogmatic, meditative, and mystical traditions such as Gnosticism,
Sufism, and Cabalism. Practices such as meditation and reliance
on individual insight and conscience will replace myth and dogma as the wellsprings
of religion. Communities and sanctuaries dedicated to rational
and tolerant spiritualities will grow, restoring a sense of connectedness to social life and
to the processes that support life. But, all this may occur against a rising tide
of intolerance and dogma spreading through the ranks of the uneducated, the angry, and
the needy. All that can save us from an age of intolerance
is reason, intolerance of intolerance, education, and spiritualities compatible with reason. The alternative is bleak: we could return
to a dark age of myth, dogma, and mind-control where heretics are silenced for advocating
the scientific worldview or an alternative spirituality unafraid of reason. Without rationally spiritual action to keep
us from destroying the connections that sustain our lives, civilization might collapse. The new dark age might not end like the last
one did in a renaissance of reason. It might just end. My own view is that there is one encompassing
reality, which can be known through public and private observation. The domain of science can be considered the
exploration and modeling of publicly knowable reality; the domain of spirituality, privately
knowable reality. Both science and religion tend to extrapolate
maps of reality formed within their domain to the other’s domain, causing misunderstanding
and conflict. Science and religion need not conflict, however. For example, a mind is only experienced privately,
and therefore can be a person’s vehicle for spiritual exploration. A mind, however, also correlates with behavior
and brain events, permitting the scientific exploration of mind. Because there is only a single reality, science
and religion, both in search of truth, must converge on a coherent understanding of reality
distilled from both public and private exploration. Where they conflict, science or religion or
both are off track, probably stuck again in ruts of dogma. I believe that the vacuum of social and personal
meaning inadvertently created by science will eventually be filled by rational spiritualities
complementary to a new spiritual rationality. The path to this future will no doubt be complex
and turbulent. For one thing, hatred and fear will always
be with us because these are basic human emotions. Like a body overcoming disease, each generation
will have to overcome new movements of intolerance and hatred within itself. While we cannot change human emotions, with
effort we can change the mindsets and social orders that underlie hatred, fear, greed,
and cycles of violence. Only to the extent that we become more spiritual
and rational will we be able to avoid violent conflict and realize sustainable patterns
for human life. Only to the extent that spirituality and rationality
converge will we be able to better discern the nature of reality. Thus, my hope is that we will use our free
will and reason to fight for the creation of a world that fosters human freedom and
the flourishing of life rather than one that undermines or even destroys freedom and life.

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